Genres of Political Writing in Britain since 1900

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: History


This research network offers a new perspective on British politics since 1900 by examining the issue of political writing and publication in a systematic, interdisciplinary fashion. This period has seen radical changes in the nature of politics (including the dawn of universal suffrage) as well as dramatic shifts in the nature of 'Britishness' (related to the partition of Ireland, the loss of Empire, and Britain's troubled relationship with Europe). We will cast new light on these questions by exploring not simply what was written about politics but how it was written and by whom. By exploring the relationship of form to content, the network will consider how the literary and other conventions surrounding political writing affected how politics was debated and discussed. The overarching theme is that of genre: how the choice of styles and categories of writing influenced what was written, and how these styles and categories were themselves reshaped by authors' and publishers' interventions and by political pressures more generally.

The network will create dialogue between scholars from English, History, and Political Science. Much valuable work on the problem of political writing and publishing has been carried out in all three disciplines. The issues that have been examined include political fiction, theatre and film; the autobiographies and biographies of key political actors; the political engagement of specific publishers; the persistence/decline of certain types of periodical; and working-class readers' reception of particular texts. This network will discuss these and like themes in parallel and, by bringing in fresh research, to stimulate new insights into the problem of genre.

It might be tempting to see the post-Victorian period as one that moved from a closed and deferential culture (in which politicians were treated with respect and in which many of their doings were kept confidential) to an open and uncivil one (in which there are no longer any real secrets and politicians are regarded with contempt). There is some truth in this: the publication of revealing diaries and memoirs has been one factor in the movement towards a culture of disclosure. Nevertheless, it is important not to exaggerate, for example, the stuffiness of pre-1914 political biographies, which often published important documents in extenso. Moreover, the fiercely fought controversies of Edwardian Britain, that in the case of the Irish question threatened to spill over into violence, suggest a more complex picture. Political writing in the run-up to the First World War could often be ribald and/or inflammatory.

We will thus endeavour to avoid oversimplification while seeking to identify broad long-term trends. We will avoid treating pre-1922 Ireland and post-1922 Northern Ireland as peculiar problems that sit outside 'mainstream' British politics. We will consider class, gender, race/ethnicity, and religion and their various impacts on political writing and publishing. At the same time, we will be careful not to treat 'politics' and 'publishing' as wholly discrete spheres of activity. Political parties had their own publishing wings and some publishers operated not purely for profit but with a view to influencing the political climate. We will, moreover, take a capacious view of what constituted 'political writing', to include counterculture products such as fanzines as well as more conventional forms of publication such as social science that were not overtly party political.
In summary, the network will offer a fresh way of looking at post-1900 British politics through a critical examination of phenomena that are often taken for granted. Publications are a core part of the evidentiary base of political history and deserve to be investigated not only for their surface content but as an aspect of political practice. In this way, genres of political writing can serve as a window into the broader question of 'how politics was done'.

Planned Impact

The issues of political writing, and political communication more generally, are problems of societal importance that command wide interest. Modern debates about the impact of social media on politics often assume that there has been a decline in politeness. An explicit examination of how politics was written about in the past can help cast light on this issue, and also illuminate the conditions under which particular ideologies and forms of political conduct have thrived or declined. The findings of the network, then, will be of considerable relevance to politicians, commentators, think-tanks, and the politically-engaged general public, as well as to those involved in the various forms of modern political publishing.
Our findings will be presented in a variety of settings, potentially including the TEDxExeter annual ideas festival. We will work with the PI's publishers (Oxford University Press) to get presentation slots at major literary festivals, e.g. Blenheim, Word of Mouth (Sheffield), and Ways With Words (Dartington Hall). We will disseminate and promote the project's findings through web publication on a variety of different websites and blogs, including that of the group History & Policy, which seeks to improve public policy through a greater understanding of history. In order to disseminate research to a wider audience, we will make use of the University of Exeter History Department's Twitter feed and the investigators' individual Twitter accounts (10,000+ followers in total). We aim to produce a number of articles of contemporary relevance that will be suitable for publication by national media outlets.
We are partnering with the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and with the Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge, for the network workshops that will be held in those cities. By including archivists from those institutions in our discussions, we hope to help them to develop new insights into the political collections that they hold (e.g. the papers of Harold Macmillan, politician and publisher, held at the Bodleian). The Cambridge and Oxford workshops will be followed by public lectures by Charles Moore and Ruth Winstone respectively.
We will also partner with History & Policy for a public event to be held in London. This will be a roundtable discussion with figures involved in different ways with various forms of political writing. Natasha Fairweather, Literary Agent to (amongst others) Boris Johnson has agreed to participate, as has Paul Unwin, author of the forthcoming play "The Promise", a co-production between the Old Vic in London and the Manchester Royal Exchange which explores the history of the Attlee government. Although it is too soon to extract diary commitments from serving politicians, we hope also to secure the participation of an author-MP, such as Kwasi Kwarteng or Rachel Reeves. We will pitch an article based on the event to The Author, the journal of the Society of Authors (of which the PI is a member).
In Norway we will partner with Litteraturhuset, which is a dedicated social space for discussing literature, politics, and cultural life in Trondheim. Since opening in 2016 they have hosted over 600 public impact events ranging from book launches to research presentations and debates. At our planned event we will invite a national figure figure from Norwegian politics (such as former PM Kare Willoch or current trade minister Torbjorn Roe Isaksen), local authors and journalists from Adressavisen, academics, and the general public to discuss our project in the light of the history of political publishing in Norway and the rest of Scandinavia. We will invite the editors of the British Politics Society in Oslo to participate and to discuss the publishing of a special issue of their magazine British Politics Review. We will also use the occasion to launch a dedicated NTNU webpage for the project and use our contacts in the Norwegian press to publicise the project by writing a Commentary piece for publication.


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